A little over a decade ago, Snakes on a Plane was released into theaters with a ton of expectation. If you are very young, very old or very good at avoiding the Internet (I'm jealous), maybe you don't know the story of Snakes on a Plane. Where Snakes on a Plane came from, its influences, how it got maybe a little too big for its britches and its legacy are actually really kind of fascinating and sort of speak to how a lot of movies get made and marketed now.
And since, plug, plug, plug, Snakes on a Plane is airing on Syfy this month, now seemed like the right time to dig in and talk about this weird piece of cinematic history. But before we do that, we need to dig a little further back to ...
THE 1950s THROUGH THE 1990s
Samuel L. Jackson is the star of Snakes on a Plane. Why did he agree to star in a movie called "Snakes on a Plane"? He liked the title! But, also, he defended the choice, saying "it was the kind of movie I would have gone to see when I was a kid. I feel sorry for all those people that are going through that whole trip of 'Why would Samuel Jackson do something like this?' and 'It's lowbrow.' It’s a movie. People go to movies on Saturday to get away from the war in Iraq and taxes and election news and pedophiles online and just go and have some fun, and I like doing movies that are fun."
Sam Jackson grew up in the '50s and '60s, so he grew up living that drive-in theater life. And how that works is, you go take the family to see the A-movie and then, when your kids are asleep, the B-movie shows up. And the B-movie is usually all monsters and screaming but beautiful. It's mindless fun. William Castle built a career off of it. Man and Ant combine to become the hideous ... MANT! You get it. Good times.
But, Snakes on a Plane isn't just any kind of B-movie. It's very specifically a riff on the '70s disaster movie. There was a very successful franchise set at an airport called ... Airport. And, of course, there's Jaws, a man vs. nature movie so successful that it spawned a near-infinite number of imitators.
The '90s kept the airplane action movie alive with Con Air, Passenger 57, Air Force One, Executive Decision ... heck, even Die Hard 2 involves a plane or two. And there's one other thing that the '90s was known for: self-aware fourth wall breaks and references. The Scream franchise's whole "what's your favorite scary movie" line is about making nods to the rules of horror. The Faculty is a constant reference to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Wes Craven's New Nightmare is literally about Freddy Krueger becoming so famous that he enters our real world.
All these things plus the 2000 parody juggernaut, Scary Movie, paved the way for Snakes on a Plane. But before you can get there, you have to talk about why Snakes on a Plane got big at all.
BEFORE IT WAS SNAKES ON A PLANE
Venom. That was the original title for the original screenplay that would go on to become Snakes on a Plane. It was written by a complete unknown named David Dalessandro back in 1992 and it was kind of based on a true story? Dalessandro had read an article about brown tree snakes getting into some planes back during World War II and built a plot based loosely on that concept. And despite many revisions, the script was passed over 30 times during the course of 1995 before finally being bought up by New Line Studios in 1999.
If 1999 rings a familiar bell so far as Samuel L. Jackson and disaster movies go, that is because that is the year he starred in Deep Blue Sea, a movie about hyper-intelligent killer sharks. That's right. Sam was already making cheddar on Jaws-related filmmaking long before there were snakes on planes.
But the reason Jackson jumped on the film was because Ronny Yu, who Jackson had previously worked with on The 51st State, was set to direct.
That did not happen, but Sam stayed on the project.
The other thing that's interesting about Snakes on a Plane is that, from the start, producers thought it was a ridiculous idea. The story goes that some Hollywood producers were at a happy hour pitching bad ideas back and forth based on scripts they'd seen or owned. Craig Berenson allegedly came up with the title Snakes on a Plane at that event. The movie was such a joke that people working on the film didn't even originally believe Jackson was serious about being in it. And, again, Jackson agreed to be in the movie based on the name alone. Snakes on a Plane. He did not even read the script, allegedly.
And that is about where the Internet comes in.
THE INTERNET AND THE POWER OF MEMES
All right. You're New Line, you've got this Snakes on a Plane thing which everyone thinks is ridiculous but Sam Jackson is on board so you're definitely making it -- how do you market it? And the original answer was ... you don't really? They pretty much just thought they'd sneak it out when no one was looking too hard. Think of it like those January horror movies. They wanted to make the money back, but I don't think the plan was to do much more than that.
But the catch is that people were kind of aware of this movie early on because when you have a shooting title for a movie that is "Snakes on a Plane," word gets around. Fun fact: the plan had been to change the title, but Jackson himself insisted Snakes on a Plane remain ... Snakes on a Plane.
And at this point your Colliders and your Deadlines and your Movie Poop Shoot dot coms of the world just kind of take the ball and run with this story of a Samuel L. Jackson movie called "Snakes on a Plane" as the weirdest and best idea to come out of Hollywood in years. It's sort of a joke, but ... also kind of not? Much like Snakes on a Plane itself, the response to the film straddles the gap between ironic interest and genuine interest.
Here's something else amazing: Snakes on a Plane came out on August 18, 2006. Twitter was launched in July of that same year. Snakes on a Plane hit at what was essentially the dawn of the current state of social media and, in that way, became one of the first modern memes before it was even released into the world.
Snakes on a Plane got SO BIG that it went back in for reshoots which netted it an R rating and added that very famous Sam Jackson line re: mother-related snakes on the mother-related plane. The only thing that didn't happen was screenings. The fear was that if critics didn't like the movie it might slow the crazy train that was the buzz around the phenomenon that had been Snakes on a Plane.
THE INTERNET HAS ITS LIMITS
Much like my ability to quote the most famous line from this movie on Syfy Wire, there is also only so much the 2006 Internet could do to help a movie called Snakes on a Plane. The anticipating had been that this weird movie might make a ton of money.
It made $62 million worldwide. That's fine, but I think the perception was that, like the '70s disaster movies that this movie was aping in many regards, Snakes on a Plane would hit closer to the $100 million mark, if not more. Which is pretty silly when you think about it. A lot of people did tweet about it. Money was made. But it wasn't quite time yet in the social media world to sell a movie based solely on a silly name.
LEGACY ON A PLANE
Well, I mean ... Sharknado, my dude. That was the big legacy for Snakes on a Plane. With the reshoots and the casting costs, Snakes on a Plane cost $33 million to make. And I think that was probably seen as the biggest flaw with the formula -- it shouldn't cost tens of millions of dollars to make a movie called Snakes on a Plane.
Do you know how much Sharknado cost to make? $2 million. And it generated income and sequels and a kind of weird prestige for Syfy at the time. It wasn't Battlestar Galactica prestige, granted, but embracing the fun of science fiction, that B-movie style did have a way of charming some people. After all, The Sci-Fi Channel (RIP) started out by airing a lot of old series and movies that were just the original version of Snakes on a Plane and Sharknado. It kind of felt like briefly coming full circle before moving on to what comes next.
And I think you can see the DNA of Snakes on a Plane's social media influence everywhere. Honestly, The Emoji Movie is basically nothing but a cash-in on memes and the way people talk on social in general. Most movies have a hashtag they want to trend. Same with TV. A lot of that started with Snakes on a Plane. Which is wild when you think about it. But here's the big question you're probably asking:
HOW DOES SNAKES ON A PLANE HOLD UP?
Okay, okay, okay. So I wrote this because Snakes on a Plane is airing on Syfy this month and so you might be wondering if it is worth watching. You may believe me, you may not, but I would say the answer is, yes, you should watch it. Until this very day, I had not seen Snakes on a Plane since 2006 when I went to a theater in Secaucus, NJ after a long day of working in the finance industry. And I liked it!
That's right, long before I wrote think pieces about Snakes on a Plane, I used to talk about annuity products and stocks and how Ronald Reagan is great because that's what you say to Merrill Lynch brokers to butter them up. At the time, Snakes on a Plane was an enjoyable respite from a career which was never going to be natural fit for a person who eschews gender norms and collects weird old movies. Eleven years later, it's just a fun movie.
You want the 100% true opinion of one person who writes about B-movies on the Internet? Snakes on a Plane has a really bland, slow and overlong first act that sets up a story and a protagonist that you will not care about. The writers sure didn't care about him, since they write that guy out almost completely by the halfway mark. Coincidentally, the halfway mark is about when Snakes on a Plane gets good. And it actually gets really, really good for a little while. The action is tight, Samuel L. Jackson and Julianna Margulies have got some solid chemistry, Kenan Thompson, Lin Shaye, Terry Chen, David Koechner, and Bobby Cannavle all put in charismatic performances, and everyone else dies by snakes!
Look, it's a movie where a guy gets bit on the junk by a snake -- it's not high art. But when Kenan and Sam land that plane, boy, I dare you not to feel a little relieved that those people survived ... Snakes on a Plane.
Also, I wrote this article so I could post this NSFW video of a song based on Snakes on a Plane that is not the official Snakes on a Plane song. 2006 me thought it was hilarious and 2017 is ashamed to agree it's still pretty funny. You're welcome!